But there’s a reality right in front of us of inclusive communities that can be positively dreamy
Donald Trump’s recent talk about the suburbs amounts to a fake dream.
I know. I lived it.
I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in a suburb of Buffalo, New York.
Yes, we had the nice lawns, comfortable houses and good public schools. And I built great friendships there with good-hearted people.
But there was a seamy underside to it all. What was, in effect, a racist underside. And it diminished us all. Not just the Black folks kept cooped up in the confines of neighboring Buffalo, but us white suburbanites supposedly benefitting from our exclusive existence and upbringing.
I knew just a handful of Black kids growing up. One of them was a quirky boy who hung out with my gang of jock-y friends, but often was the butt of jokes. I don’t remember the teasing ever taking on an explicitly racist flavor. But I wonder in retrospect if we weren’t picking on him in ways that reinforced a racial ranking, if we weren’t unconsciously treating him as a “coon” or “sambo.”
We were well-intentioned. At one point, a Black teenager transferred to our high school — I believe out of concern for his safety given trouble at his former school in Buffalo. We all crowded around him at a lunch table, asking about what it was like “in the ‘hood.” It was a clumsy combination of curiosity and racial exoticism.
Like all kids, we were impressionable. And life in Amherst, reinforced by our local adults and the wider American system, pressed into our consciousness that Black people did not belong with us, that Black people were dangerous, and that Black people were inferior.
At least those were the messages I received.
I recently asked my father about the topic. He says that many white folks in Amherst 40 years ago were “unaware” of the depth of racial inequality in areas such as healthcare, housing and economic opportunity. “A lot of us were completely blind,” he says. “Our idea of racism was what we saw in the south.”
That makes some sense. My dad grew up in Amherst in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. It was not marked by the physical brutality against Black people seen in places like Mississippi and Alabama.
And yet looking back, the barriers that kept Black people out of Amherst were as powerful and effective — if not more so — as Jim Crow laws segregating the races in southern states. Substandard schools in nearby Buffalo. Routine job discrimination. And the higher home prices on our tree-lined streets that could prevent a Black family from moving into Amherst without anyone ever uttering the word “race.”
Housing costs, then, were an invisible, economic force field — one that allowed Amherst’s grown ups to deny being racist. The housing piece also gets at a deeper, not entirely pretty aspect of the suburban American dream. That dream is a fundamentally individualistic one. It is about owning a home, maximizing one’s wealth and comfort, and setting one’s children up to do even better.
An Independent Fantasy
On the one hand, this suburban American dream seems reasonable enough. But it also amounts to a fantasy that blinds us to other core values. The fantasy is that individuals can divorce themselves from the wider fabric of humanity. It’s the same sense of self-sufficiency ingrained in our traditional version of masculinity, where men are conditioned to downplay our interdependence with other people and the planet.
And with a mindset of isolated families seeking to better themselves, we lose sight of other human callings. Like our sense of universal brotherhood, enshrined in most faith traditions. Our sense of compassion toward those wronged or hurting. Our sense of fairness.
Was it fair, for example, that I was born to a white family living in a tidy home in a suburb with great public schools? How was it Ok for me to have those privileges compared to a boy or girl born the same day but to a poor, Black family living just a few miles south and to the west, in the confines of Buffalo?
Like my dad, I didn’t ask these questions growing up. And maybe what helped shield my consciousness and quiet my questioning was the mean-spirited way white America so often spoke about Black people. There was President Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” — a myth of undeserving, lazy Blacks that made it Ok to ignore structural inequality.
And there was racist talk closer to home.
One of my family’s closest family friends was a white man who told anti-Black, racist jokes on occasion. Everyone laughed. There might have been some eye-rolling. But I don’t remember a single serious challenge to his bigotry.
Trouble in the Motherland
Not even from my mom.
My mom was in some ways the quintessential “suburban housewife” Trump has been talking about lately — the kind that he says he’ll protect from the dark-skinned, poor hordes likely to move into low-income housing.
My mom greeted my brother and sister and me after school each day with kisses and snacks. She created a warm home that welcomed all our friends, who came over for street hockey, basketball and late-night Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
She was more likely to buy Entenmann’s cookies than make her own, though. That’s because she was busy teaching at a Catholic elementary school.
And that Catholic education career may have saved her soul from the morally suspect racial characteristics of our suburb.
As a teenager, my mom had marched for Civil Rights in Chicago. And she never gave up on the Christian belief that we are all God’s children, no matter our color. Once her nest emptied, she rose up the Catholic education ranks in stints across the country. She served as Associate Superintendent for Chicago Catholic Schools and later as Superintendent of Catholic Schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Through those roles, my mom served many Black students and other students of color.
Not surprisingly, when my brother and sister-in-law adopted three Ethiopian children, she loved those Black grandkids as dearly as her white grandkids.
Mothers Going to Work It Out
My mom died six years ago. She was ahead of her time. Suburban housewives today are showing up at Black Lives Matter protests. They are among those most turned off by Trump’s racist schtick. They are giving him a thumbs down in the polls.
Count my father as another Trump critic. A defector, in fact. My dad voted for Trump in 2016, but won’t do so this year. To my dad, Trump’s attempts to whip up racial fears among suburban voters is a cynical ploy to stay in power. “Trump is only about himself,” my dad says.
More generally, my father has changed his views on race from his days as a suburban dad. Now living in St. Paul, Minn., he says the George Floyd murder and ensuing racial justice uprising has opened his eyes to the “gulf” in the experience between Black and white Americans.
My dad isn’t alone. Research shows American voters have become significantly more aware of racial discrimination and more sympathetic to those protesting to end it.
That solidarity has something to do with a changing country. More and more people — suburban folks along with urban ones — are experiencing the richness of human diversity in their families, their workplaces, their communities.
Over the past 30 years, in fact, suburbs have increasingly become the most racial and ethnically diverse areas in the country.
An Inclusive, Dreamy Alternative
I haven’t lived in Amherst for 35 years.
My parents moved away a year after I left for college. I gather my hometown has grown more racially diverse, but I’m not all that familiar with it anymore.
I’ve lived most of my adult life in cities. New York City for five years, and San Francisco for the past 25 years.
Though I love San Francisco, there are real concerns that wealthy, often-white techies are pushing Black and Latino families out of the city. We also have a massive homelessness problem that we haven’t managed to solve.
But there’s a nearby suburb that gives me hope for an anti-racist, inclusive future.
It’s Albany, Calif., a bedroom community north of Oakland. Albany is home to some dear friends and my two goddaughters, both Chinese-born adopted girls. It’s not perfect when it comes to race relations. But my younger goddaughter’s best friends include two African-Americans. And when my older goddaughter graduated from Albany High School a few months ago, it was like a party at the United Nations. Families with roots from around the world stood outside the auditorium — in proper social distancing behavior — and cheered on those diverse young Americans.
My goddaughter left earlier this month for Hawaii Pacific University, a choice she made in part because it boasts a very international student body. She wants to continue growing up and learning amid people of many backgrounds, with many perspectives.
Such diverse environments and communities are what young people — including young whites — increasingly want. Not the walled off suburban worlds of yore. Those always were deeply flawed — animated by racial anxiety, anchored in exclusion and founded on a false, partial picture of human nature and our intertwined fates.
So let’s wake up from this nightmare of a presidency, and this fake dream of racist, soul-eroding suburbs.
There’s a reality right in front of us of inclusive communities. Places to live together that can be positively dreamy.